Mako and Billy Vunipola help Saracens fight back for win over Newcastle

There was a moment midway through the first half where it seemed as if Saracens’ homecoming would be spoiled. Playing in front of a crowd on their own turf in a top-flight game for the first time since March 2020, the men in black were disjointed, disconnected and staring at a 17-3 deficit against a team they had beaten in each of their last 18 encounters.

And then Dom Morris flattened Ben Stevenson. Minutes earlier, the Saracens outside centre had been shrugged off by his opposite number who scored Newcastle’s second try in the corner. This time Morris made the hit that forced a turnover. The resulting scrum resulted in a penalty which was hoofed upfield by Owen Farrell. And though the subsequent lineout came to nothing, Saracens stayed camped inside Falcons territory and would only leave once their maul had secured a penalty try and Newcastle hooker George McGuigan was shown a yellow for cynical play.

Rugby is a game of momentum and Morris’ challenge altered the course of this contest. Before then the visitors were a cut above, faster in thought and action as their backline sparkled. Mike Brown, on debut for his new club after feeling so unwelcome at his last, shone from full-back, joining at second receiver and offering runs off the shoulder. One such cut against the grain ended in a try as he collected a Louis Schreuder pop under Saracens’ posts.

When Stevenson scored following a change in possession, a hush descended across the capacity crowd. They had waited a long time to watch their side perform at this level again and this was not what they had in mind.

So Saracens went back to basics. Breakdown dominance and a set-piece built of granite gave them a lifeline. That Jamie George and the Vunipola brothers were at the heart of their revival is no coincidence.

“They’re motivated players,” the Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said after the game when asked if his three big hitters had a point to prove after being omitted from Eddie Jones’ England squad. “What we’re seeing during the training week is what we’ve seen over the last ten years, but they’re all desperate to get back.”

Performances like this will certainly help. George was a non-commissioned officer, driving his comrades into the maw and leading by example. He was not credited with the penalty try just before the break but he was the reason it happened.

He received the credit he deserved after the restart. Another maul ended in similar fashion but the crescendo of George rising with the ball, roaring to the crowd, resonated at a different frequency. ‘Are you watching Eddie?’. The narrative was hard to ignore.

Mako Vunipola was the next to score, not through a maul but through a crack in the Newcastle defence after a lineout fractured. Farrell drop-kicked the conversion and then added a penalty before the hour to open up a 10-point lead and extend a string of 24 unanswered points.

That seemed to revive Newcastle who looked to run it at the same pace they had earlier. But with Saracens now within sight of a victory, those spaces that once existed were closed. A Brett Connon penalty was all they could add to their tally.

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“I thought we gave a good showing of ourselves and but for a few bounces of the ball and a few refereeing decisions going our way we could have got something,” was Dean Richards’ summation, accusing Farrell of being in the ear of the referee Ian Tempest “the whole time”.

Newcastle’s director of rugby may have a point. But just about every breakdown and scrum could feasibly culminate in a penalty for either side. And with Saracens’ lineout and drive on the ascendency, that momentum moved in one direction.

Billy Vunipola added the gloss, scoring off a lineout to hand Saracens a bonus point and deny Newcastle one of their own.